"IF NEW YORK IS THE CITY that never sleeps, Portland is the city that never throws anything away," Monica Drake writes in her new novel The Stud Book. And "Portland is a city of vocalized opinions and insta-activism"; and "In the winter, even the days were dark in Portland."
It's not quite accurate to say that our fair city is a character in Drake's newest—The Stud Book is a book about motherhood, and so it seems more fitting to describe Portland as the womb in which Drake's characters gestated, where in utero they absorbed grunge music and Henry Weinhard's beer, and learned how to separate the recycling.
The Stud Book opens on a zoologist observing a pregnant worm, musing on its resemblance to a foreskin—it simultaneously establishes an anthropological bent to the novel's action, zeroes in on reproduction as a central theme, and establishes Drake's cheerful willingness to use the male anatomy as the basis for even the most unflattering comparisons.
The group of four female friends at the core of The Stud Book are lifelong Portlanders who grew up with Satyricon, blown-out warehouse districts, and dive bars that didn't card. Now middle aged, some of them have weathered Portland's transformation into a finicky bourgie burg better than others. They variously have, want, and don't want children; those with husbands struggle to navigate a route between fidelity and routine, and those without dabble in prostitution, or forge on alone.
The Stud Book is a big, digressive novel, and there's a recklessness and randomness to its plot that some readers will find frustrating. Drake is more interested in how and why people do what they do than in tidy storylines; her characters crash into each other for sex and comfort and companionship, like the big animals they are. Some story threads resolve and some don't, and there aren't so much narrative arcs as narrative eddies, little moments that swirl and disappear without a trace.
More problematically, The Stud Book reads a bit like a serious novel that was conceived as a comedy, still carrying traces of a snarkier, more satirical first draft. And so characters end up with names like Arena, Humble, Nyla, and Celestial—jokey names for serious characters, for what is ultimately a serious novel. One character runs a sustainability-focused store where nothing is bought or sold, and while perhaps the point is to poke a little fun at a dreamy, privileged sort of activism, it reads like a vestigial joke, unsuited for the big, grownup novel it's attached to.
The Stud Book is vulnerable to the same criticisms as Portland itself—this is very much a novel about quirky white people. What saves Drake's novel, though, is that she ultimately avoids the easy Portlandia punchlines in favor of a view of modern-day Portland that's squarely rooted in the city's past.